Mike Lowry - a farmer in the Tala Valley region whose farm, Ingomankulu, is one of the 10 000 identified for exploration - said they would oppose plans to drill for oil and gas. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Durban - An American-based oil company which wants to drill for oil and gas on 10 000 KwaZulu-Natal farms, faced a hostile crowd yesterday in Ashburton, near Pietermaritzburg, when it began its public consultation process.

Rhino Resources, headquartered in Texas, felt the full brunt of an angry community, made up mostly of farmers who fear that the company intends to use hydraulic rock fracturing (fracking) to extract any gas deposits it may find.

Fracking is a term that describes the artificial fracturing and shattering of underground rock to extract methane and other gases by pumping a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand up to 6km into the ground.

Rhino Oil and Gas Exploration South Africa has lodged an application with the Petroleum Agency South Africa to explore farms covering a 1.5 million-hectare span. As part of the legal process, the company needs to hold a meeting with affected communities.

Crammed

Yesterday, about 300 people crammed into the Ashburton public hall where Phillip Steyn, chief operating officer at Rhino Oil and Gas Explorations, and independent environmental consultants of SLR Consulting, took questions.

Residents complained that the meeting was held early in the morning when most people were at work and a small number left before it could start, arguing that the company’s intention to drill boreholes was illegal.

Among those raising objection to possible fracking was Pietermaritzburg’s St John’s Diocesan School for Girls which handed in a petition signed by 200 pupils.

Frans du Toit, of African Conservation, said if there was the slightest risk of water pollution, it would be unforgivable.

“We cannot risk the health of our future generations for short-term gain,” he said.

Du Toit asked Steyn whether fracking was the end goal. Steyn dodged the question, saying that it could not be determined because it was “so far down the line”.

Pressed for a yes or no answer on whether fracking would be used, Steyn refused to answer.

“We don’t know at this time,” he said.

It was left to SLR consultant, Matthew Hemming, who said there were various methods of extracting gas from the ground and that fracking was one of them.

“Fracking is a possible end goal. That is a fair conclusion,” he said.

Gayton le Grange, who described herself as a “normal human being” who arrived at the meeting using fossil fuel, appealed for calm, and said there was a phenomenon called “not in my backyard”.

“Everything is fine as long as it is not in my backyard. We all got here using petrol, but it just didn’t come from our backyard.

“I am not in favour of this process, but I am aware that the oil has to come from somewhere. I think you guys are here because you think there is something (in the ground),” she said.

Le Grange asked Steyn what was his company’s production policy on water contamination in event of an emergency.

Steyn said they did not have any production policies in place as yet, because they only had exploration policy.

“Everything we do, such as drilling a borehole, will be done in the safest possible way. We are also legally, bound by the environmental impact assessment to rehabilitate anything that is damaged,” he said.

Wayde Holland, of Coast Watch, said his concern was that the area Rhino identified for exploration extracted 93% of its water from the ground, and that if it was contaminated at any point, it would pollute the entire water system

Drakensberg

“This system runs from the Drakensberg, right down to the coast. This is a highly-sensitive area and it is not a case of going to negotiate with individual farmers, you will influence a whole water supply. That would be a serious problem,” he said.

Environmental activist, Desmond D’Sa, also present at the meeting, said there was a huge outcry against fracking in the US and that the method had been banned in several places, including New York, because of pollution fears.

“All these oil companies that are coming here (to South Africa) have been blocked in their own countries from using fracking. (Rhino Resources) Needs to present us with the case studies on contamination because of fracking.

“Fracking is a no-go area in the US and they are fighting it…

“We need to get organised and fight this and not allow them in (on the farms). Once we allow them in, then we are doomed.

“Let us stand up united now and stop them,” D’Sa said.

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